Seek the welfare of the city... for in its welfare you will have welfare. Jeremiah 29:7 (NASB)
Now in its third manifestation, St Paul’s is the oldest church in Auckland, having been a light in the city since 1841. The first St Paul’s was built in Emily Place, just off Princes St, where a plaque still marks the site of the beginning of God’s church in the city of Auckland.
Old St Paul’s was located in the heart of the colonial city, near the imperial garrison stationed at Britomart, and alongside the remnants of the old pā, Rangipuke in Albert Park, where Ngati Whātua had defended their rohe during the Musket Wars of the 1820s. At that time, St Paul’s was the seat of the Bishop of New Zealand, the Reverend George Selwyn, and was the locus of ecclesiastical power, and worldly prestige, as the wealthiest settlers worshipped there. Many of St Paul’s artefacts, such as Selwyn’s Throne, date from this time of connection to power and political importance.
St Paul’s prominence in colonial society shifted as the geography of Auckland developed over time. During the height of the New Zealand Wars in the 1860s, the church was used as a safe haven for women, children and the elderly – its location in the midst of the city, near the garrison, made St Paul’s ideal for this traditional church role of providing sanctuary in times of strife. After the war moved south, however, the congregation dwindled as wealthier attendees moved to the new suburbs of Epsom and Remuera, and St Matthew’s in the City, located further west, served the working suburbs of Freeman’s Bay and Ponsonby.
St Paul’s shifted; embracing the changing needs of the city for which it had been built. The Emily Place church was demolished in 1885, and a temporary wooden church, designed by William Skinner, was erected on the corner of Short St and Eden Crescent to house the congregation while a permanent site was identified.
Several sites in the southern reaches of the central city were discussed, but Auckland’s growth since the end of the New Zealand Wars meant that many were not suitably large for the planned church. Only the present site, halfway up the Symonds St hill, was large enough: it located the church once more in the centre of the city. Symonds St intersects with Karangahape Rd, the oldest street in Auckland which was, by the 1880s, a thriving thoroughfare and shopping precinct used by both Māori and Pakeha, since the road was a traditional walking track along the ridge from Owairaka (Mt Albert) to Orakei for Ngati Whatua. Also located in the vicinity of the new church site was the official cemetery, which had areas for the burial of all the Christian denominations by then present in the city, as well as the Jewish section that is now found at the corner of K’Rd and Symonds St. St Paul’s, once central to the colonial seats of power and prestige, was now placed to seek the welfare of the city, amongst the people of the city, at the intersection of race and faith.
The new church was dedicated in 1894, despite the absent corner tower and steeple that had been part of Skinner’s original design. The Long Depression of the 1880s and 1890s had impacted the Anglican Church’s ability to build such a monumental church and the decision was made to keep the interior plain, with any ornament coming from the Rose Window and the artefacts gifted by Selwyn. This unadorned sanctuary suited the mood of the country and the mood of the congregation, who were largely drawn from the surrounding working-man’s suburbs, Kingsland, Grafton, and Eden Terrace.
St Paul’s was due for another shift. While the church remained on the Symonds St site, a ‘beacon on a hill’, the appointment of Reverend C.A.B Watson in 1908 led to the revitalisation of the church as a bastion of Anglo-Catholicism in a largely puritanical city. Watson, and his successor Samuel Corbin, who served until 1953, shaped the mood and focus of the church for a half-century, bringing in the Sung Mass, a focus on choral music and introducing the notion of spiritual healing. For both Watson and Corbin, however, the prevalent theology of the day dominated, and healing was seen as coming through participation in the sacraments of the church.
The history of the modern St Paul’s begins in 1953 with the appointment of Father Kenneth Prebble, who was able to look beyond the norm in terms of Anglican practise and embrace a revival of the Holy Spirit as entirely orthodox. Through an encounter with a young Baptist businessman who had entered St Paul’s to pray during his lunch hour, Prebble was invited to a prayer meeting at which he experienced the Holy Spirit. Powerfully moved and convinced of both the orthodoxy of the theology he heard discussed, and the genuine faith of those present at the meeting, he sought advice from the wider Anglican Communion and discovered other Anglicans who were becoming involved in revivals of the Spirit.
Prebble’s experience, the support he received from his wife, and the wider Anglican community, allowed him to transform St Paul’s. Always noted for its music, the church became a beacon of the Spirit, evangelical, contemporary, determined to be both light and salt. The introduction of contemporary music, the establishment of a regular coffee-shop outreach to students and young people, Prebble and his successor Father David Balfour, led by the Spirit, created a church that had real and lasting impact in the lives of many young people in the city of Auckland.
The revival of the 1950s and 1960s married the Anglo-Catholic sensibilities of the previous fifty years with the radicalism of the period, creating in St Paul’s a space where people could experience the Spirit in inward and outward manifestations. Balfour, in particular, encouraged his church to be involved in the issues of the day, to “seek the welfare of the city.” However, by the 1970s, the Anglo-Catholicism that had provided the theological framework for the spirit and justice revival witnessed at St Paul’s had lost its ability to inspire the Word of God. The dynamic outreach of a kingdom-focused church dissolved into a bundle of conflicting theologies without strong leadership or good biblical teaching. The 1980s and 1990s were to be a period of fallow ground for St Paul’s, as the young congregants of the previous period moved away or lost their faith, with a loyal portion of Anglo-Catholics continuing to worship at a church that had supported them for nearly 100 years.
Modern St Paul’s is experiencing a second revival: during the late 1990s and early 2000s, many young New Zealanders came to faith or re-experienced the Spirit at St Mary’s, Bryanston Square in London. Returning home, many of them as new parents or newlyweds, they sought a similar spiritual home in their native city. A team from St Mary’s, after discussion with the Anglican Church in New Zealand, were invited in 2004 to set up new family and young people-focused services in the historic St Paul’s, Symonds St. Mike and Bex Norris, together with a core congregation of about eighty people in the first year, many of whom had previously attended St Mary’s in London, have overseen huge growth, with well over a thousand congregants now registered on the church database. Key to that growth has been the impact St Paul’s has sought to have in its specific location: as a beacon on a hill, a light for the city of Auckland. St Paul’s offers relational, experiential, culturally relevant faith that is dedicated to social justice, attempting to become the place where Jesus and justice meet. Since 2004 the staff of St Paul’s has grown to ensure that the spiritual, pastoral, intellectual and social needs of the congregation and the city can be met. The plethora of courses, groups, activities, worship and fellowship at St Paul’s today – after starting with a roomful of people – reveals the impact we are having on the city of Auckland, seeking once more the welfare of our city.